As we exited the hustle and bustle of the mountain city of Shillong, we continued onward on the seemingly endless mountain road towards Jaintia hills. With every twist and turn, honk and jolt my stomach twisted in knots until finally I made my breakfast offerings to the mountain gods. After a fifteen minute break with some fresh mountain air and a PepPod to restore my energy, we were off again. As we whisked past every domestic animal known to man, our presence was barely noticed. One beep is usually enough to send a dog, cat, pig, goat and of course the whole cow sauntering off to the side of the road. Driving in India is not for the faint hearted, but it is a necessary evil that you better get used to. “Almost”, definitely does not count in India.
As we headed downward on this unforgiving mountain pass, it was as if we were driving into a sauna, with the Himalayas trapping the ever persisting heat from the flat plains of Bangladesh. This causes a buildup of moisture and makes this the wettest place on earth. We were in for some steamy weather!
We were headed for the tiny village of Mawlynnong, famed for the most beautiful of all the living bridges and for being the cleanest village in all of Asia. Cleanliness is an age-old tradition in the way of life. In these valleys, the Khasi tribes have pioneered eco-engineering, creating hundreds of living bridges that criss-cross Rivers and gorges, connecting villages as they go. Here they do not cut lumber to build bridges, but instead they grow them. No one knows exactly how old these bridges are but some estimate that they could be as old as 500 years. These stone pathways and bridges were originally used to trade beetle nut (A mild stimulant the locals chew) with the city of Shillong.
Ficus Benghalensis, a kind of rubber tree with an exceptionally malleable root system, is trained with the assistance of bamboo pole to create the marvelous bridges. Over the mounts the fast growing roots weave around the pole until they reach the other side, where they are allowed to take root in the soil. In 10-15 years a useable living bridge is formed. As the bridges grow, stones are placed as a walk way across the bridge. The sustainable bridges are ingenious because they do not weaken with age, but in fact grow stronger.
As we meandered down the path to the bridges, we were greeted with endless smiles and hellos. Like everywhere else in Assam, the locals were most welcoming. A little way down the river it seemed to be laundry day. Woman and children were wading in the shallows washing their clothes. As the heat peaked and our sweat dripped, we enjoyed mingling with the splashing and laughing children.
It’s not every day you see such an amazing and inspiring symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. The only ones that carry the secrets of how long these bridges have existed are generations past.